With all that Christopher Nolan has done since, from gravel-voiced Batmen to Russian-nesting dreams, it’s easy to forget just how great his 2000 backwards-is-the-new-forwards thriller Memento really is. Almost as easy as it is for its main character to forget just about everything. To refresh people’s memories, the film will be celebrating its tenth anniversary with special one-night screenings tonight in 11 cities. We decided it’d be a good time to revisit the movie that put Nolan on the map and made a practical case for body art and Polaroid cameras. Now, where were we?
Darren Franich: Memento should feel more like a gimmick. The quick description is that the story moves “backwards,” but that’s not really true. Just like the dream-heist in Inception, the movie’s actually constructed on multiple distinct planes. The main plotline starts with the death of Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and moves backwards. A secondary plotline, shot in black and white, moves forwards in time. Through those black-and-white scenes, we learn the fable of Sammy Jankis, which runs throughout the movie. Finally, there’s the occasional flashback to Lenny’s life before “The Incident.” It sounds like a film written on a 3-D chessboard. So how is it possible that Memento is actually the funniest movie Christopher Nolan has ever made?
Keith Staskiewicz: It’s really such a tightly plotted, premise-based movie that by all rights it should be a beautiful, but soulless, curio like a Swiss watch or a taxidermied chimpanzee, but it really ends up having a lot of personality. I think it’s because Nolan was smart enough to realize the inherent comedy in the premise, even if it is being played as an existential neo-noir. 50 First Dates is pretty much the straight joke version of it, and weirdly Memento gets more laughs. Also, honestly, I forgot how much Guy Pierce adds to the movie. He plays Leonard only one click away from a Woody Allen character, and it somehow works perfectly.
DF: Guy Pearce makes the movie. His character could be a total blank — constantly repeating the same things, perpetually unaware of his own surroundings. But Pearce makes you see how every interaction is, for Lenny, a game of improv. It’s essentially a comedic performance, really, even though the character is arguably both the noble hero and the villainous mastermind of the movie. I guess you could argue that Lenny is the prototypical Nolan hero — obsessive, haunted, grieving for a dead wife/parent/female acquaintance — although watching Memento again now, I wonder if the real comparison isn’t to the Joker, another improviser who lives in a state of perpetual anarchy.
KS: To me, the movie has all the fun and the narrative streamlining that Inception doesn’t. Now, I liked Inception, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not a whole lot more weighed down and expository than this movie. They both have the same puzzle-box element to them, but where Inception sometimes threatens to go off the rails and leaves a few empty spaces that look suspiciously like plot-holes, Memento is pure controlled momentum and closed loops.
DF: “Weighed down” is the right word, I think. I’m a huge Nolan fan — The Dark Knight and Inception are the only films I can remember that I actually badly wanted to see in the theater over and over. But there’s a feeling of forced weightiness in a lot of his work. When I think of Nolan’s films, I think of handsome men scowling. Lenny never really scowls in Memento. He experiences the world with a constantly rediscovered bliss. “Bliss” is not a word that comes to mind when I think about Bruce Wayne.
KS: “Growly” or “vengeful sourpuss” would be more like it. For a thriller that moves backwards, it’s put together surprisingly like a regular movie: Continual revelations, emotional build-up, even the faint outlines of a three-act structure. Something like Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, which uses the same conceit much more cynically, always feels on a narrative level like a movie going in reverse. While watching Memento, there are times where, appropriately enough, you almost forget it.
DF: In the last few years, Nolan has become known for being a very visual director — think of all the zero-gravity scenes in Inception, or all the gritty-comic flourishes of the Batman movies. (I know the Hong Kong scene in The Dark Knight is incredibly extraneous, but it sure looked purty on the IMAX screen.) So it’s funny that Memento is not even remotely a visually overpowering movie. Most shots are just people talking back and forth, in drab hotel rooms and diners. There aren’t any over-stylized flourishes, which explains why Memento, for all its time-twisting, is probably Nolan’s most relatable movie.
KS: Even the black-and-white is only used for practical reasons, because otherwise it’d be extremely confusing when he cuts between what happened previously and what is happening now. Or then. Or in a past of a future present. I will say, I’m interested to see what Nolan does with Catwoman considering that she is a) a female character, and, b) not deceased. I wonder if all those dead, immortally beloved SOs in his movies (Jorja Fox, Rebecca Hall, Piper Perabo, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marion Cotillard) make Emma Thomas, his wife and producer, feel warm and fuzzy or just creeped out.
DF: It’s true, Nolan doesn’t have a stellar line-up of female characters…which makes Carrie-Anne Moss’ Natalie even more of a revelation. I remembered her being more of a straight-ahead femme fatale, but when you see the movie again, you notice just how intriguingly modulated her performance is. There’s something really sad about Natalie, but also very empowering — she’s the one character in the movie who takes clear and direct action, even if her actions only really become clear on a fifth or sixth viewing. I don’t know if she’s a three-dimensional character, or just a panoramic sketch of noir womanhood, but I’ll take her over Rachel Dawes any day.
KS: It’s like an optical illusion. Her dimensions only really come into relief in hindsight. Which seems like something that should be a negative, but really it works within the context of the film. And unlike other movies that “require” multiple viewings (like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense), I feel you get a lot more out of it the second time around. You realize that this would actually be a pretty decent, The Last Seduction-type movie even if it played forward. Also, the twist at the end is more organic and thematic than those other two movies, so it doesn’t end up overshadowing everything else.
DF: Memento would’ve been an influential movie even if Christopher Nolan had never made anything else. (Once you start looking, you see Memento everywhere: in the amnesiac hero of The Bourne Identity, in the multiple chronologies of Lost.) But Nolan went on to make a few of the biggest movies ever made. I’m a huge Nolan fan, but watching Memento, I found myself wishing that he could find time to make another small movie. As a director, Nolan seems uniquely capable of bending the blockbuster form to his own will. But he still makes blockbusters — I’ll never get over how mundane and action-y that snow-fortress sequence was in Inception. Memento still feels exciting and alive a decade later. Will we still feel that way about Inception, ten years from now? Will we ever love Dom Cobb the way we love Leonard Shelby?
KS: It’s a fair question, and I think it’s dependent on what movies come out in the interim. The Inception influence is probably going to start rearing its head sometime next fall or winter, just as the District 9 influence only popped up recently with Skyline, Monsters, and, coming up, Battle: Los Angeles. It remains to be seen whether Hollywood will use it as an inspiration to be more creative and original or if the only thing they learn is they should try to use more foghorn sounds. If it’s the former, then I think Inception will benefit in hindsight. As for Leonard vs. Dom: It’s interesting that the guy who is a literal blank slate manages to be less of an uninteresting cipher than the one with his memory intact.
NEXT WEEK IN HISTORY: The Farrelly Brothers direct the new comedy Hall Pass. We’ll return to their biggest hit: The breakout sensation There’s Something About Mary, a film that created two superstars (Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz) and taught us all a valuable lesson about hair gel. Also, Brett Favre when you loved him!